Put aside memories of the slow-building tension of yesterday’s westerns, Director Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven may be a remake of the 1960 classic (which was in turn a remake of the Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), but it’s also very much a modern Hollywood action flick. This is no doubt music to the ears for much of today’s audience who are dismissive of the genre as being antiquated, and maybe even a little boring. But for those worn out by the churn of slick but unmemorable mid-budget action movies, the horses and revolvers aren’t going to do much to spice this one up for you. Thankfully, if you are someone who lands on that side of the fence, The Magnificent Seven still deserves your attention if only for the excellent cast.
Leading the titular septet is Denzel Washington’s Chisolm, a warrant officer hired by a small town living under the tyranny of Peter Sarsgaard’s evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue. There are some other moving parts, and obviously a bunch more characters, but essentially it all boils down to the seven heroes plus simple townsfolk vs evil Bogue and his private army. Simple and predictable? Maybe. But it’s a plot that comes packaged with endearing bravado, back-against-the-wall heroics and the fist-pumping satisfaction of seeing the underdogs wipe the smile from an overconfident villain and his smug henchmen.
After last month’s Suicide Squad showed us exactly how not to make a movie about seven ragtag characters teaming up for an impossible mission (one tinny-guzzling Australian aside, obviously), Magnificent Seven‘s tight pacing and confident structure feel like a breath of fresh air. All seven are given a sense of character and more or less equal standing in the team. Some probably deserved a bit more attention in the final battle, but they all feel like they play their part, both tactically in the team and in keeping you entertained throughout the movie. Surprisingly refreshing is just how easily they all fall into comradery and belief in the mission. There are some inherent prejudices some have for others, and an expected amount of dick-measuring between them, but the respect they quickly develop for each other is undeniable. In the same way, the lack of motivation most of them have for stopping Bogue strangely works in the film’s favour. It’s not something they have to do, but it’s a cause they’d happily give their lives for.
The second-act recruitment drive is a personal pet-hate, but, for people less stuck-up than me, it can be a lot of fun getting to know the team one by one, and it certainly doesn’t feel out of place here (especially given Seven Samurai is considered one of the first films to use that device). Even so, there’s no denying the film takes a little bit of time to kick into gear. Ultimately, The Magnificent Seven is all about preparing for one big standoff, and while there are a few smaller set-pieces to whet your appetite along the way (namely when the seven first turn up in town to stir up trouble), pretty much all the action and character beats occur in the final act. It’s not that the pay-off isn’t worth all the buildup, but some patience is required. A few smaller missions throughout would also have been appreciated to see more of the team interacting under pressure instead of only letting them get to know each other in the movie’s quieter and more reflective moments.
While the seven all get their moments in the sun, some expectedly shine brighter than others. Denzel Washington gets the short straw in terms of personality, acting as the straight man to his eclectic crew and putting a professional face on the operation, but he’s not without a certain presence that proves pivotal in the movie’s more tense moments. Chris Pratt’s Faraday is also a little vanilla in comparison to his teammates. No doubt he’s a draw for audiences and he certainly gets the screen time they’d expect, but in the end Pratt’s doing the same old shtick, only this time with a slightly less likable and interesting character. Much more successful is Ethan Hawke’s wonderfully named Goodnight Robicheaux, a veteran and legendary sharpshooter who’s psychologically crippled by his past and gets by with the help of his equally intriguing protÃ©gÃ© Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). Though he plays a much smaller role than some of the others, the stand out to me was undoubtedly Vincent D’Onofrio’s bear-like and bizarrely soft-spoken hermit Jack Horne.
Sadly, things don’t fare nearly as well when you look outside the eponymous posse. Haley Bennett’s Emma Cullen, the widow who hires Chisolm to fight for her town, is woefully underdeveloped and often finds herself an unwelcome distraction from the more interesting characters. Doubly disappointing given she’s pretty much the extent of the film’s female characters. The real problem though is Sarsgaard’s almost comically evil villain. The movie as a whole is littered with overwritten dialogue, but Bogue’s moustache-twirling monologues danger towards laughable. Combined with Sarsgaard’s sombre delivery, and his complete absence from 90% of the movie, you have an antagonist that would look disposable in a lineup of Marvel’s most forgettable baddies. Even his inevitable comeuppance at the movie’s climax proves to be disappointingly unfulfilling.
While Bogue may not add much to the movie, his army of nameless gunslingers pick up the slack and ensure the big battle the movie hinges on is worth the wait and the script’s shortcomings leading up to it. At first the fight seems a little one-sided, with countless men falling like horse-riding stormtroopers against the guns of our well-prepared and bad-ass heroes, which is pretty damn fun to watch even if it is a little unbelievable. But as the battle evolves the tide does turn back and forth, injecting some much appreciated tension and uncertainty of who, if any of them, will survive. It’s about as clichÃ© Hollywood as you can get, but there’s no denying how gratifying it is watching a group of heroes you’ve spent the time to get to know fight tooth and nail with their backs against the wall until the bitter end.
Again, it really does all come down to the final battle, and while it certainly doesn’t disappoint, whether that’s worth the wait will vary from viewer to viewer. The Magnificent Seven is far too uncreative and at times haphazardly written to be a critical darling in the action genre, but if you can push past what the movie isn’t and enjoy the upbeat energy, great cast, and climactic final act, you could be in for quite a ride.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10